Largo pétalo de mar (A Long Petal of the Sea), the latest book by bestselling author Isabel Allende, is a historical novel that could very well be set in present time. The central theme is immigration—from those who fled Spain during Franco’s dictatorship and arrived in Chile, only to have to later flee Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship that began in 1973. It is about what people lose when we are forced to leave our homeland in order to survive, and how history repeats itself. It is a story of millions of people throughout history that is more relevant today than ever before.
Largo pétalo de mar, the metaphor that Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda once used to describe his country, begins in the late 1930s, when Spain was gripped by a civil war and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Víctor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two marry and together are sponsored by Neruda to embark on the SS Winnipeg, along with 2,200 other refugees, in search of a new life in Chile as the rest of Europe erupts in war.
The novel explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and fate, and presents strong independent protagonists navigating two wars and a military coup. Throughout the novel, the power of love is, again, Allende’s main subject. Roser and Víctor have to stick together as husband and wife to support each other and her baby, though they are not in love. But the adversities they overcome demonstrate to them that real love grows from loyalty, companionship, and the hardships they face together.
Largo pétalo de mar, released in the U.S. in the Spanish-language edition last month by Vintage Español and due out from Ballantine in English in January, is the 17th novel by Allende in a career that has seen worldwide bestseller and critical success; she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters by the National Book Award Foundation in 2018. But writing isn’t the only thing keeping Allende busy these days, as several of her novels are being made into movies, TV series, theater productions, and operas. And she will start writing a new book January 8, the same date she started writing all of her previous books.
The Winnipeg arrived at the shores of Chile with the dreams and hopes of many. In Largo pétalo de mar, Allende delivers to the U.S. shores a novel that exposes the fears and heartbreak that come from leaving one’s homeland to immigrate to a new land. Although the novel is not set in the U.S., it is very much an American story.
PW spoke with Allende from her home in California. She sounds happier than in previous interviews. We soon find out the reason for her jovial tone: later in July, at the age of 74, she will get married for the third time. She has pointed out in several recent interviews that one is never too old to fall in love.
With this novel, you take readers through a journey in which history, and immigration in particular, repeats itself. Is this your way of exploring the topic of immigration, which seems to be consuming many parts of the world?
I think the theme of refugees that are displaced has been in the air so much with what has been happening in Europe, where millions of refugees are reaching its borders. Then there is the hatred being built by Trump here in the U.S. My last three novels have dealt with refugees and immigrants, but in this one, it is the central theme. I didn’t plan to write about refugees, but the conversations are all around us, and it just seeps into my books.
You yourself have emigrated a couple of times. Does this impact your identity? And do you feel, like many immigrants, that you no longer belong to one place or another?
I have never felt that I have roots. I lived in Chile for seven years, then moved back when I was 16, and then left when the military coup took place in 1973. We arrived in Venezuela as political refugees, forced to leave Chile. But coming to the U.S. was a very different experience. When I moved to California, I came to be with a man I loved, William Gordon. It is quite different to be forced to run away from something than it is to run toward something.
Where is home for you: Chile or the U.S.?
Up until recently, I felt very Chilean, but a big part of that was because my mother and stepfather were both in Chile. They were my link to my roots, but they recently passed, within three months of each other, so I suspect the ties won’t be as strong going forward, as I don’t have any immediate family left in Chile. My son, grandchildren, and now Roger are all in California. Everything for me is in California; I will probably die here.
In this book, like several of your prior books, love is one of the main characters of the novel. In this book you explore a platonic love that becomes romantic with the passing of time. What type of love have you not explored in any of your books that you would like to explore in one of your novels?
That’s an interesting question—never thought of it, ever. In some of my books I touch upon love between homosexuals, but I would like to explore it more, go deeper into it. It is still love between two people, but with layers of social prejudice and negative stigma. Those things seep through a relationship and make it more complicated. There are several types of love that carry social stigma, for example, couples that live together but never get married or someone that leaves their spouse for their lover—society places a judgment that is always part of their relationship.
Your novels are often an homage and a celebration of women, and yet, in this book, you pay tribute to Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda—a man who didn’t always treat women with respect. Do you consider that to be a dichotomy?
Neruda was a flawed man, but you can’t take away his literary merits and his work as a diplomat. He was sent to Paris as special consul to assist with the Spanish migration to Chile during the Spanish Civil War. Neruda was amazing. He chartered the Winnipeg and was able to get over 2,000 Spaniards on the ship and take them to Chile as refugees. If Neruda is to be judged on his treatment of women, you would have to judge him in the time it happened, not by today’s standards. Those were very different times, and if you censor him, you would have to censor everyone. The discussion around Neruda and his treatment of women has come up lately in Chile because they wanted to name the airport in Santiago after him. The idea of naming the airport after Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American and Chilean author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, who was also a diplomat, was dismissed because she was a lesbian. She deserves to have the airport named after her.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned that when you were a journalist, you went to interview Neruda, and he told you to be a novelist and not a journalist. If Neruda were alive today, what would he say about you as a novelist?
He invited me to his house for what I thought was my opportunity to interview him, but instead he said that he would never be interviewed by me, that I was the worst journalist in the country, that I lie all the time, and that if I don’t have a story, I make it up. He recommended I switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues. He had invited me because he liked the humor and irony in my articles. Neruda had cut out many of my articles because they made him laugh. It was many years later that I wrote my first novel, The House of the Spirits, which Hulu is now making into a TV series.
Leylha Ahuile, editor of PW’s Books in Spanish department, is a Chilean political refugee living in the U.S.